Take a look at the pictures above—you’d think they were impressive before-and-afters for a cellulite treatment. And yet, there was no procedure. No one got a spray tan. Nothing was even Photoshopped. The only thing that’s different is the lighting.
“Cellulite is like a Chesterfield couch, where buttons are pulling down on fabric so you get dimples and depressions. But when you diffuse the lighting, it washes the dimples and depressions out,” says Peter B. Fodor, a plastic surgeon in Los Angeles and past president and chairman of the board of trustees of the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery. “I’m not accusing anyone of doing that on purpose. Maybe some people do and some people do not. But we need a standardized photography technique that shows cellulite at its worst.” In the meantime, two things are for sure: I’m going to avoid standing in direct light whenever possible (yikes), and it’s not just cellulite that’s affected by lighting. “Eyes are a good example. If you have head-on lighting, it can look like excess fat bags were removed when they may not have been at all,” says Fodor. “But if light is projected from above the patient, it creates a shadow that emphasizes puffiness under the eyes.”
And while it’s hard to tell whether lighting is (intentionally or unintentionally) manipulating an image—”we even have issues at medical meetings,” Fodor says—there are a few telltale signs you can look for. Shadows (or lack thereof) are key. “A good photo may be dark in places, but it’s dark on purpose,” says Fodor. That’s because shadows emphasize imperfections in the skin. So both the before and the after should have the same amount of shadow. And both should have a light source that’s coming from the same angle. Take the pictures above: “In the picture on the left, the light was sent from an angle so the shadow emphasizes and shows the true appearance of cellulite,” he says. “In the picture on the right, the light is diffused across the skin so it appears smoother.” And be wary of claims that sound too good to be true. “Herbal treatments and tea do absolutely nothing for cellulite,” says Fodor, who has helped develop invasive (Vaser and VaserSmooth) and noninvasive (Endermologie) procedures for treating cellulite. “Most noninvasive treatments don’t work either, but 12 sessions of Endermologie’s computer-programmed massage therapy is fairly successful for some patients who don’t want surgery,” he says.
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